White Horses

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Read 31/05/2021

Rating 5 stars

White Horses is a modern production of a book that never was, a new imagining of a work that should have been, featuring autolithograph reproductions of paintings by one of my favourite artists, Eric Ravilious, and text by Noel Carrington.

Carrington wrote the essay that accompanies Edward Bawden’s lithographs depicting Life in an English Village. He also created Puffin Books, the children’s imprint of Penguin. As part of a series of coloured picture books for Puffin, Carrington commissioned Ravilious to illustrate a book about the chalk figures of Dorset, Wiltshire, East Sussex and other areas of the English Downs. Ravilious wanted to title it White Horse, but Carrington chose Downland Man, to allow for the inclusion of other, non-equine chalk figures.

The Second World War intervened, and Ravilious’ focus shifted to his work as an Official War Artist, but not before he had created a dummy, incorporating pencil sketches and pasted-in photographs of his now famous watercolours of English hill monuments, painted in 1939, as a mock up of the book. Ravilious’ death in 1942 meant that the pause on Downland Man became permanent.

The dummy was thought lost until 2010, when Roland Collins, an illustrator who worked with Carrington in the 1950s, rediscovered it among papers Carrington had given to him during an office clear out. The dummy is now at the Wiltshire Museum and Joe Pearson of Design For Today obtained permission to finally create the book that never was, titling it White Horses in homage to Ravilious’ preferred title.

I saw something on Instagram that led me to Pearson’s account, and shortly after that to the DFT website, where I bought this delightful book.

It comes wrapped in a dust jacket, on the verso of which is printed the history of the book with images taken from the dummy.

The book itself marries Ravilious’ illustrations with new work by Alice Pattullo, filling in the loosely sketched out elements in the dummy. The text, inspired by a letter from Carrington to Ravilious describing his ideas for the narrative, is by Pearson and introduces the landscape of the South Downs and their prehistoric occupants. For Pearson, “the prehistory of England deserves a closer, longer look” than the school curriculum allows. This book, with its clear, readable language, is a good starting point for anyone, young or old, who is curious about the people who lived in the south of England before writing took hold.

When I lived in Oxford for a year, for my first real job in archives, I visited some of the prehistoric sites in the Cotswolds. I’ve long been fascinated by the markings on OS maps showing stone circles, monuments and round houses. I didn’t study this period of history either at school or university, so only have a glancing knowledge of it. This book has helped to flesh out that modicum of knowledge.

Ravilious’ muted colour palette suits the feeling evoked by Pearson’s words. The soft greens, browns and yellows, occasionally interrupted by a burst of turquoise, feel prehistoric. They conjure in me the same wonder I feel when driving through the hills of Cumbria or Wales, thinking about the way the landscape has changed thanks to our husbandry of it, and yet has largely remained the same as our ancestors would have experienced it.

I also love the very human perspective captured in the paintings. I’m so used to seeing images of landmarks from above, now, taken from the air, that it is refreshing to see the monuments, as painted by Ravilious, distorted by the landscape and largely depicted from below. His painting of the Uffington Horse in particular adds mystery to the now familiar chalk figure. From the text accompanying his painting of the Wilmington Giant, I learnt that this monument is only in proportion when viewed from the bottom of its hill. I also love the way Ravilious used barbed wire fences as leading lines to draw the eye into many of the paintings. His are depictions of landscape that it’s easy to get lost in.

As well as introducing the monuments painted by Ravilious, the text also informs the reader of such things as the sacred nature of rivers, the development of farming and animal husbandry, the development of pathways and roads, how pottery was made, what food Neolithic people ate, their burial practices, and the purpose served by Neolithic hill forts. Much of this information is illustrated by contemporary illustrator Alice Pattullo in striking monochrome.

This book is a beautiful celebration of the Downs and it made me want to visit these monuments and the landscapes that house them.

10 thoughts on “White Horses

    1. It’s a real beauty, Chris. The pages are a good size, too, so it doesn’t feel like you’re peering at the pictures. I found myself quite immersed in some of them. It was very relaxing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Some years ago Mainstone Press published “Ravilious in Pictures,” a series reproducing the watercolors. I have two volumes, “A Country Life” and “Sussex and the Downs.” The books are really beautiful — each painting has its own page, opposite a page of text discussing it. I’m not sure how many books were ultimately published; I’m a little regretful I didn’t follow through and get the entire set!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. They still have them! https://www.themainstonepress.com/mainstone-books. There are four in total. I like the look of the Travelling Artist volume. There’s also an edition of his wood engravings. My parents had some plates that were a Ravilious design called Harvest Festival – they were ‘seconds’ with a slight imperfection in how the transfer was applied. I loved them as a child and have the remaining two boxed up in the attic. One day we’ll sort out a display cabinet so that I can have them on show again.

        Liked by 1 person

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